De/meaning Manhood

[This is in response to Cold Wolf’s short essay on homosexuality, which he advertised in the comments section of a recent post. It also touches on the basic issues underlying Pinko Punko’s recent post about the implications of progressives using feminizing language to insult our male opponents. – Res Publica]


Despite the fondest dreams of both biological essentialists and religious wingnuts (and other foundationalists), no society uses gender to structure power in intimate relationships in precisely the same way. On the other hand, despite the fondest wishes of some feminist scholars (Riane Eisler comes to mind), no society has ever found a way to structure intimate relationships without the blunt tool of patriarchy.

But….so what?

No one had used electricity before someone used it for the first time. Today, electricity and its applications shape our entire civilization. We did something new, and it changed the way we do a whole lot of other things. And the world went on.

The notion that something new must violate either the intentions of God or the order of Nature stands in a long (if ignoble) tradition of reactionaries. I personally can see no reason why the fact that something has not been done in the past should mean that we cannot or should not do it in the future. That so many people see such horrifying danger in novel social practices speaks to me of a fearfulness and traditionalism unworthy of the nation that produced people like Walt Whitman, Dorothea Dix, Sojourner Truth, or John Dewey.

The Problem with “Should”

I’m not an essentialist or a foundationalist. I don’t believe that there is any “should” or “ought” or “okay”, because that implies that there is a Rule-Maker and an Enforcer beyond the force of our agreements. That “something beyond” may be God, or it may be Nature, but in either case, we’re on shaky political ground. Surely we don’t think that Divine Law is an appropriate limit and horizon for democratic life? Because we know what people who DO think that are like, right?

People who think more along Cold Wolf’s lines would prefer recourse to Nature for the source of how things “should be”. But even a cursory glance at the world around us reveals a glaring absence of “should” in nature. Things are either possible or they are not. The laws of universal gravitation say that (assuming I’m on Earth) if I drop something, it will always fall. Not that it should fall, but that it will. If sexually reproducing animals were somehow “intended” for exclusive heterosexuality, the homosexuality simply would not happen. It would be as impossible as me unexpectedly floating off the surface of this planet. Of course, the very notion that nature intends anything is already assuming a theology.

Long story short: neither of these worldviews is appropriate as public policy in a free society. Whatever our public and collective obligations may be, they surely do not include Christian holiness on the one hand, or fidelity to the binary sexual lives of animals on the other.

As for Cold Wolf’s assertion that homosexuals are simply selfish, and that our love is “really only” close friendship and genital narcissism…well – he is assuming to know things about a group of people that a) he is not a member of, b) is clearly not listening to the experiences of, and so c) knows nothing about. Whether intended as such or not, statements like that are really nothing more than ad hominem smears.

Imagining a World With No Telos

The idea that gay people somehow threaten the reproductive imperative of the species is only another form of the error involved in ascribing intention and behavioral prescriptions to nature. One could point out the facts that a) we certainly do not have any general social expectation that everyone “carry their load” of reproductive “work” – as heterosexuals are not required to marry, and married people are not required to reproduce – and b) that ifhomo sapiens faces any threat to its survival that is rooted in reproductive behavior, it is our seeming inability to limit our reproduction in contexts where resources are limited. Evolution has no intentions but survival, and since it seems that some small percentage of humans have consistently experienced same-sex affections throughout all times and in every place, and this trait continues to be expressed, it seems reasonable to conclude that homosexuality presents no discernable threat to human survival.

But ultimately, it’s better to just get to the root of the matter and disallow the fallacy of ascribing intention to nature. That’s nothing but rank anthropomorphism, a trace of theology, left over from the age when we believed that the world was a machine with a Maker who had a Purpose. It is unfitting for the public discourse of a secular democratic society.

De\meaning Manhood:

Cold Wolf jumps directly from talking about homosexuality to talking about “acting like a woman sexually”, by which I assume we’re talking about a man being the receptive partner in anal sex with another man. Suddenly, we’ve moved to much, much narrower ground. We’ve put aside the female half of the gay community, as well as the substantial percentage of gay men who are not bottoms.

But this is really what this conversation is always about, isn’t it? All of the never-ending dialogue and discomfort around what we so cleanly term “homosexuality”, I mean. Isn’t it really about straight guys being grossed out by the idea of a guy getting fucked?

The idea that manhood is in some sense both penetrating and impenetrable is a very old one. In fact, it is the root idea of patriarchy (at least as we have it in the occident). Helene Cixous describes it quite clearly:

“Where is she?

Form, convex, step, advance, semen, progress.
Matter, concave, ground – where steps are taken, holding- and dumping-ground.


Always the same metaphor: we follow it, it carries us, beneath all its figures, wherever discourse is organized. If we read or speak, the same thread or double braid is leading us through literature, philosophy, criticism, centuries of representation and reflection. Thought has always worked through opposition.


(Helene Cixous, “Sorties”)

So yes, in a certain sense, it is a really big deal for a man to be penetrated. I don’t think it “demeans” the dignity of manhood (and no true materialist believes that “manhood” has anything like “dignity” to begin with), but it may de-mean masculinity: decenter it and subvert its status as the worldly hypostasis of the full presence of the Divine Logos. It may undo its meaning. If so, then I admit it and am happy to be a part of this project. I honestly never thought of receptive anal sex as anything more than…well…getting fucked. But if it also destabilizes the “upper term” in each of the binary pairs identified by Cixous, subverting its ontological and temporal priority, then I’m all for it.

I do not personally believe that male-male anal sex usually escapes the power relations that come along with the binary of “penetrating/penetrated”, although it does sometimes mutate them. It can mean a lot of different things in same-sex male relationships, and I would agree with Judith Butler that “the thought of sexual difference within homosexuality has yet to be theorized in its complexity.” (Bodies That Matter, 240)

But I do believe that the male/female binarism is originary and constitutive of the whole great sequence of lesser cleavages Cixous names, and because I am committed to a future the horizons of which are no longer defined by that “chain”, I am not ashamed to be viewed by gender-absolutists like Cold Wolf as “compromising manhood”. In a strict sense, that may be true, and I hope so. “Manhood” has caused enough humans enough suffering. I hope for something different.

Derrida wrote that “the future can only be anticipated in the form of an absolute danger. It is that which breaks absolutely with constituted normality and can only be proclaimed, presented, as a sort of monstrosity.” (Of Grammatology, 5) In a sense, then, I cannot fault Cold Wolf for his horror. He rightly perceives, I think, that what is really at stake in the debates over homosexuality is the end of patriarchy. And that is monumental. If Cixous is right, in fact, the feminist project if fighting for a future that is absolutely unimaginable. The dissolution of “male” as the foundational sign that makes meaning possible calls into question the very coherence of every way of being human that we know. I do not fault Cold Wolf for perceiving this as absolute danger.

Because the future, after all, is what we are fighting for.

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